Let's clear up the messy picture that is the National League wild-card race. It won't be easy.
The NL wild-card is a mess. This much we know. As it stands entering Wednesday, seven teams are reasonably within reach (3 1/2 games) of securing one of the two spots. There are the plesant surprises like the Mets and Diamondbacks, and then there are the what-are-you-doing-here-barely-above-.500 surprises like the Phillies and Brewers. Our writers and editors sort through the madness below, predicting which two teams will square off in the NL's do-or-die play-in game.
I don't like jumping off preseason predictions unless I need to (such as a team hopelessly buried). So I'll stick with St. Louis and Milwaukee reaching the postseason, in that order. I'm not so confident about the Brewers, who have a negative run differential, but their final 13 games are against Padres, Pirates, Reds and Rockies–losing teams. The Cardinals have vastly underachieved on offense. They must be better in these last six weeks.
My preseason picks were the Phillies and Cardinals. I'm no longer standing by the first one there—I don't have much faith in Philadelphia's pitching staff finding a way to restore itself. Instead, I think the first spot will go to the Nationals, whose second-half resurgence has looked very much for real, and I still think the second one will belong to the Cardinals, who seem capable of outperforming the mercurial Mets.
As I wrote Monday, I think the NL wild-card belongs to the Nationals and Mets. They have the two best rotations of any contenders for those spots, and they have MVP-caliber hitters (Anthony Rendon in D.C., Pete Alonso in Queens) to pace the lineup. All bets are off, though, if their bullpens don’t perform better.
The Mets and the Cardinals. The Mets have the starting pitching to continue their run, and the Cardinals get to play the Rockies and the Giants seven more times.
Every NL wild-card contender is flawed. A weird week could see the seven-team slog flip upside down. So let's get weird, shall we? The Mets have no business being in the race, yet here they are, two games out of the second spot and my pick to win the first wild-card. As for the final slot, the Giants will ride Madison Bumgarner, Jeff Samardzija and a rested (and recovered) Johnny Cueto to the second wild-card like it's 2016 all over again. Mets-Giants, deGrom v. Bumgarner and no Conor Gillaspie. Even if the odds are slim—what baseball fan wouldn't want to watch that?
The Nationals are too talented not to get one of the two wild-card spots, even if their bullpen is a mess. They have three No. 1s in their rotation and have the underappreciated superstar Anthony Rendon anchoring their lineup. That’s good enough, at least, for the first wild-card. For the same reason, I have the Cubs winning the second wild-card (with the Cardinals taking the NL Central). Chicago's lineup is full of stars, it has four good starters (five if Yu Darvish is effective) and, despite his struggles, Craig Kimbrel will be closing games out for them down the stretch.
I'll take the Nationals and the Brewers, in that order. Washington's roster appears conducive for a September playoff race, armed with four quality starters including perhaps the best in baseball, Max Scherzer. The Nationals' plus-47 run differential is also better than every wild-card contender outside of Arizona. Faith in the Brewers extends largely to faith in Christian Yelich, and he seems to be a pretty safe bet. If only he could pitch for Milwaukee, too. The rest of the National League field is flawed, even as the Mets channel the spirit of Bud Harrelson and the '69 Mets.